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Brave new europop

This year's Popkomm music platform in Berlin shows that globalisation is making its mark on the pop music landscape. By Daniel Bax

Big names were conspicuous by their absence at this year's Popkomm, the business platform for the music and entertainment industry in Berlin. Instead small-fry nations such as Spain, Finland and South Africa shaped the programme in a clear reflection of the impact globalisation has made on the pop music landscape.

Popkomm ain't what used to be. A quick flick through the festival programme which the music fair in Berlin hopes will attract a wider audience beyond the confines of the industry, will probably leave you a tad disappointed. There are no international stars, no White Stripes or Kayne West to boost glamour levels that started slipping after the move to Berlin last year, at the very latest.

But there are also very few British or American newcomers heralding new trends, poised on their starting blocks, all set to send waves through the pop world. Instead, the festival programme is crawling with no-name bands from pop music Lilliputians like Finland, Spain or Canada all cavorting with reggae, rock and hiphop from Germany.

The Popkomm's festival concerts allow you to pick and choose between bands from Denmark, Black Metal from Norway or South African ska-punk and Finnish jazz. But you can also treat yourself to a "Flemish Night" with young Belgian bands, jump up and down to New Dutch Wave or sample a bit of the "nouvelle scene francaise".

But home-made produce prevails at the Popkomm, particularly from the republic's DJ kitchens. From Michael Reinboth and his Compost label to the Jazzanova DJs and their Sonar Kollektiv, the dignitaries of German disc spinning demonstrate yet again that mixing skills have not gone out of fashion. The medium sized electronic businesses from Gudrun Gut and her "Oceanclub" to the young Erfurt DJ label "1st Decade" also make an honorary appearce. And then there's a long list of the usual suspects such as Paul van Dyk, Ellen Alien, Tiefschwarz and Klee. Watergate, a club on the Oberbaum bridge between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts, is presenting an evening for the other techno lables, the pop academy in Mannheim is also showcasing its first batch of graduates and there will be a first ever award ceremony for German Gospel. You certainly can't accuse the programme of not being varied enough.

But you'll look in vain for fresh flavours like reggaeton, the hot new sound from the Caribbean: this festival is very much European average. This is not just a symptom of general fatigue in a music industry no longer capable of generating and pushing new global trends. It's also not because certain circles in the world of pop are in denial, trying to pretend that something like the "c/o pop" festival in Cologne is a truly alternative event and a playground for trendscouts. It has much more to do with a fundamental structural shift in the public face of pop music, which few people seem to have properly grasped.

The near absence of the USA and Britain at this year's Popkomm is simply the most visible sign that they have long lost grip of the reign in the pop music universe. This development was already making itself felt when Popkomm was still in Cologne. On the one hand, this results from the crisis of the major labels who for years saw themselves as little more than distribution divisions for their parent companies in New York and London. But it also points to the rise of local pop industries throughout Europe, that has resulted in local artists dominating local charts. In Germany the Fantastische Vier, the Toten Hosen and Sarah Connor make up the top ten; in France it will be the hiphop band IAM, the Nouvelle Chanson singer Coralie Clement or Rai star Khaled. Of course different pop cultures always existed in the world of pop. What's new is that they are no longer flourishing exclusively on home turf but are part of the global exchange and compete with the traditional pop nations of the UK and USA. And that's part of globalisation too.

The responsibility for this new complexity is not carried solely by the European pop industry, which has caught up and is suddenly neck and neck with the pioneer pop nations. A significant part of the work was carried out by so-called "export offices" which have sprung up in all sorts of countries to market their local pop culture. It was the French who after a concerted effort by their music industry and cultural bureaucracy first succeeded in exporting their pop music around the world and ensuring significant growth rates in all musical genres.

By now countless countries from Korea to Germany have followed France's example, the German pop music being promoted abroad by the "German Sounds" office and the Deutsche Welle "PopXport" programme on TV. It's no longer record companies that dominate the exhibition space at Popkomm today, but the national stands of the export offices from the Netherlands, Denmark and South Africa. So it's only logical that, like the book fair in Frankfurt, Popkomm focusses on a different country each year. Last year it was France, this time it's Spain which gets the chance to show its best side. Anyone who thinks this is irrelevant has missed the point. These countries will produce the bands and the trends of the future. Like I said, the pop world ain't what it used to be.


The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on September 14, 2005.

Daniel Bax is music editor of die tageszeitung.

Translation: lp.

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